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PETER H. KING

Once More, Into the Redwoods

September 18, 1996|PETER H. KING

EUREKA — They are fighting over trees up here in redwood country again. Anymore, they always are fighting over trees. It's only to be expected: The fewer the trees, the fiercer the wars over whether to log or enshrine them. This time the fight is centered on a particular stand of redwoods, a grove of tall wonders called the Headwaters.

The battle for Headwaters Grove presents some intriguing complications. The trees in question are special--perhaps the last privately owned stand of the great swath of virgin redwoods that once covered the North Coast. The 3,000-acre grove is not controlled by any old Johnny Lumberjack, but rather by a corporate raider from Houston who ran with Michael Milken in the glory days of junk bonds and hostile takeovers. His opponents are hard-core activists who have brought a new edge and flair to the theater of protest.

On Monday morning, for example, a small cadre of protesters was blocking a gate that loggers must pass to enter Pacific Lumber Co. property and, a few miles beyond, the Headwaters Grove itself. A battered junker of a Toyota had been deposited at the gate, its windows smashed and tires flattened. Holes cut in the floorboard allowed a protester underneath the car to chain himself to colleagues stuffed inside the vehicle. Others stood around the car, beating tom-toms and speculating about how long it would take the authorities to extract the chainees.

"When the deputies found us here at dawn," one of the drum-beaters reported, "they were really impressed. They said, 'Well, you guys really did it this time. This is a good one.' "

*

One name floats over the Headwaters fight. It can be heard in the lyrics of protest songs and seen on most picket signs. It dominates the discussion of Washington politicians struggling to negotiate a purchase of the grove, and also of Pacific Lumber Co. loggers worried about who is watching out for their interests: Hurwitz. Hurwitz. Hurwitz.

Charles E. Hurwitz is chief executive of Maxxam Inc., which back in the '80s bought Pacific Lumber when the company didn't even know it was for sale. It's said that Hurwitz made his move after spotting Headwaters and its trove of centuries-old redwoods from the air. It's also said by those who have watched him bargain that he has, as one put it, "not a shred of a sense of humor."

This last evaluation seems harsh. Why, the first thing he did after taking over Pacific Lumber was come out and tell his new hirelings a joke. You all know, he said, about the golden rule. Well, he went on, it goes like this: "Those with the gold rule."

For all his gold, Hurwitz does have problems. Two federal agencies are demanding some $750 million from him in repayment to taxpayers for an S&L bailout, a hangover from those whoopee-making Milken days. Also, there are these hairy people who beat tom-toms and file legal actions every time the loggers start rolling for Headwaters. For 10 years, he has wanted to chop those trees, each of them worth $100,000 or so. Pacific Lumber once was admired for its slow, selective approach to timber harvests. Under Hurwitz, the pace has doubled. Clear-cutting is permitted. No stand of trees is sacred. His gold. His rules.

*

There's been talk of swapping federal timberlands for Headwaters. There's been talk, too, of canceling Hurwitz's S&L debts in exchange for the forest. The dollar value of the grove is disputed, as is the amount of surrounding acreage needed to sustain its ecosystem. Environmentalists want to obtain 60,000 acres of connected woods. Hurwitz and his people talk of 3,000 acres and a smaller buffer zone.

So far, the negotiations have produced only a two-week moratorium on salvage harvesting in Headwaters. Protesters vow to make it, as one put it, "an interesting two weeks." Which, from the perspective of Hurwitz, is not necessarily a bad thing at all.

Come, he might tell them. Come my hairy friends and sing sweetly of my trees. Hold them up as a sacred icon, as the grandest prize in environmental politics today. Line up by the hundreds behind Bonnie Raitt and get arrested on network television. Demand that every politician from Clinton on down come to the table and cut a deal with me, Charles Hurwitz, and cut it now.

You see, the greater the pressure, the stronger Hurwitz's hand. As a negotiator told Business Week, "it's a game with Hurwitz. He's rich, powerful and knows he has the one thing we want."

His gold. His rules.

His trees.

Hosanna to free enterprise and all that, but this one just doesn't seem right.

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